Theo Epstein saved Red Sox once; don't be surprised if he does it again

Theo Epstein saved Red Sox once; don't be surprised if he does it again originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

For two years now, it has been apparent that only two words could save the Red Sox in the eyes of their fans: "Theo" and "Epstein."

The boy wonder general manager might not be a boy anymore -- he just turned 50 -- but the mere invocation of his name still fills the locals with wonder. He not only ended the World Series curse at 86 years in 2004, he built another champion in 2007, left behind most of the key parts that won it all again in 2013, and in his spare time after delivering the Cubs to the promised land, he saved baseball.

Friday's shocking announcement that he's joining Fenway Sports Group as a part owner and senior advisor is the first legitimately good news surrounding the team since the Red Sox took a 2-1 lead in the 2021 American League Championship Series.

Even in a part-time role – he'll keep his outside job in sports-focused private equity – he immediately restores a level of credibility that's desperately needed on Jersey Street, where the Red Sox have neglected the big-league product and actively alienated their fanbase.

Epstein's return creates the possibility of relevance again, because more than anyone in ownership or baseball operations, Epstein possesses the power to move John Henry.

MLB executive Theo Epstein and Red Sox owner John Henry
Can Theo Epstein convince John Henry to invest more resources in the Red Sox?

Chairman Tom Werner and CEO Sam Kennedy have worn it publicly – the former for declaring a full-throttle approach to an ultimately sleepy offseason and the latter for handling virtually every nasty press conference solo – but there's little doubt that Henry is driving the team's concurrent slides down the payroll rankings and standings.

Henry made it clear the day he fired Dave Dombrowski in 2019 that he no longer saw the connection between spending and contention, and ensuing seasons have only reinforced that notion, with the small-market Nationals winning a World Series and the nondescript Diamondbacks reaching one. Left unsaid, of course, is that neither team has otherwise won a playoff series in more than 20 years.

Epstein's impact may not be felt immediately – it's unlikely he'll suddenly convince Henry to sign left-hander Jordan Montgomery, for instance – but over the long term, I wouldn't bet against his sheer force of will to make Henry see that betting solely on prospects will cost him too much in the short term with no guarantee of long-term payoff.

The irony, of course, is that what fueled Epstein's departure in 2011 was ownership's insatiable need to "feed the monster," as he memorably put it. Epstein wanted to build from within while augmenting a homegrown core with targeted signings. Under then-CEO Larry Lucchino, the Red Sox were desperate for stars to feature on NESN. Both men had a point.

Now the Red Sox gone in the complete opposite direction, and perhaps Epstein can show them the error of their ways.

If there's one thing we learned about him during his time in Boston and Chicago, it's that he's far too competitive to settle for last place. Even when the Cubs were rebuilding from 2012 until their 2016 title, they still added championship pieces along the way, from Kyle Hendricks to Jake Arrieta to Jon Lester. By the time their young core of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Javier Baez matured, they were already surrounded by veterans who could guide them home.

Epstein has a long history of convincing Henry to leave his comfort zone, whether it's trading for Curt Schilling, winning the bidding for Daisuke Matsuzaka, or signing Carl Crawford. His Red Sox teams demonstrated the value of always being in the mix, with a 10-year sellout streak at Fenway Park, record NESN ratings, and a place at the center of the sporting conversation.

Now, the Red Sox are begging fans who haven't held season tickets in 10 years to reconsider, they're admitting the payroll probably won't even be as high as last year, and they're boasting that the historic ballpark will draw as many fans as the product on the field.

They've strayed so far from their mission that they've completely lost their way. Who better to put them back on the path than the man who led them out of the darkness two decades ago?

Even when Epstein left on bitter terms in 2011, fans held out hope that he'd one day return, potentially as part of ownership. Now that day is here, and suddenly it's exciting to ponder what he might do for an encore.